Over the past few weeks, millions of Americans have watched a tape from 2005, featuring Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women:
“I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
When asked to explain this conversation, Trump claimed that his comments were just “words” and “locker room talk,” and that the video is “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we are facing today.” Trump also attacked the Democrats, pointing a finger at what he characterized as Bill Clinton’s history of sexual aggression, and Hillary Clinton’s role in undermining her husband’s accusers.
I would suggest that Trump’s reaction to the video is just as alarming as the conversation itself. His explanation implies that his words are normal and natural – just a way for men to joke around and bond.
Acting as if sexual aggression against women is normal and unimportant can have real and harmful consequences, as I have seen through my previous work with sexual assault survivors as a rape crisis counselor and my scholarship on sexual harassment and sexual assault.
The ways women are harmed
Here are four ways attempts to normalize these behaviors can harm women in very real ways.
1. Trivializes sexual aggression
Trump’s comments minimize the seriousness of sexual harassment and assault – something that affects millions of women in the United States.
The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey estimates that 19.3 percent of American women have been raped and 27.3 percent have experienced unwanted sexual contact, like kissing or groping, in their lifetimes.
Studies estimate that 58 percent of women report having experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Less “severe” forms of sexual harassment happen more frequently. These behaviors can include making crude or lewd comments and questioning a woman’s competence or ability to perform her work – for example, by saying, “This is no job for a woman.” Also included: calling women demeaning or denigrating names, like “bitch” or “Miss Housekeeping.”
Not taking the experiences of these women seriously can have devastating impacts. Not surprisingly, experiencing any type of sexual harassment often results in a woman feeling less satisfied with her job, coworkers and supervisors. Women who are sexually harassed also report lower mental and physical health.
Experiencing rape or sexual assault often has long-lasting consequences for women’s mental health, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts. A woman’s physical and sexual health can also suffer.
2. Spreads misinformation about the nature of assault
Following the release of the video, many women have come forward with allegations of sexual assault against Trump. Trump has claimed that these “stories have been largely debunked,” but most of these reports have not been objectively disproven.
Trump has tried to discredit his accusers by questioning their motives. For example, he said, “They get some free fame. It’s a total setup.” He also attacked their attractiveness: “Look at her, look at her words, you tell me what you think. I don’t think so.” and “Believe me, she would not be my first choice, that I can tell you.” The message behind such comments is that only an attractive woman could be a victim of sexual harassment or assault.
Feminist scholars have long argued against the myth that physical attractiveness is a main motivation for sexual predators. For instance, in the classic text “Against Our Will,” Susan Brownmiller states: “The rapist chooses his victim with a striking disregard for conventional ‘sex appeal.’”
Recent research on perpetrators of sexual assault supports this idea. Perpetrators’ motivations for sexually assaulting women are often about power, control and hostility toward women. For instance, one man in this study stated: “I basically used her as my personal f—box…she was just dead weight…she could barely open her eyes.”
3. Makes it harder for victims to report
Making light of sexual aggression against women makes it even more difficult for women who experience it to come forward.
Studies suggest that fewer than 25 percent of women who experience sexual harassment actually file formal complaints. Similarly, research finds that only 5 percent to 20 percent of women report rape to law enforcement. Rates of reporting also vary depending on the behaviors women experience. Seemingly “less severe” forms of sexual harassment and assault (like unwanted sexual contact) are rarely reported. Women are often reluctant to report sexual harassment and assault out of fear: fear of being blamed, not being believed, being ostracized or retaliated against.
In a recent example, former Fox News Host Gretchen Carlson, who filed a sexual harassment suit against Roger Ailes, described feeling hesitant to come forward about her experiences and worrying about the harm it could do to her career.
4. Models problematic behavior
Messages that normalize and trivialize sexual aggression are especially harmful when they are coming from someone who is aspiring to be the president of the United States.
We know that leaders can play an important role in shaping organizational and social culture around sexual assault. Research on bystander intervention programs find that when leaders model positive behaviors – for example, by recognizing the seriousness of sexual violence and stepping in to stop it when it occurs – other people are more likely to intervene as well.
One bystander intervention program trains student leaders on college campuses to act as “Peer Opinion Leaders” who model positive bystander behavior for other students on campus. A research study, published in 2014, found that a college campus using this program had lower rates of sexual harassment than campuses that did not implement this program.
On the other hand, leaders’ beliefs and actions that help foster sexist, hostile environments can increase women’s risk of sexual assault. One study examined data collected by the Department of Defense in 2002 and 2006, which assessed experiences of sexual harassment and assault among active duty servicewomen. This research found that women who worked in an environment where sexually harassing behaviors were prevalent were 12 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women working in an environment with no harassment.
Words that help to create a culture that tolerates and normalizes sexual harassment and assault can have devastating consequences.
Kathryn Holland does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: Kathryn Holland, Doctoral Candidate in Psychology and Women's Studies, University of Michigan